Coy v. Iowa

Decision Date29 June 1988
Docket NumberNo. 86-6757,86-6757
Citation487 U.S. 1012,108 S.Ct. 2798,101 L.Ed.2d 857
PartiesJohn Avery COY, Appellant v. IOWA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Appellant was charged with sexually assaulting two 13-year-old girls. At appellant's jury trial, the court granted the State's motion, pursuant to a 1985 state statute intended to protect child victims of sexual abuse, to place a screen between appellant and the girls during their testimony, which blocked him from their sight but allowed him to see them dimly and to hear them. The court rejected appellant's argument that this procedure violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, which gives a defendant the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him." Appellant was convicted of two counts of lascivious acts with a child, and the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed.


1. The Confrontation Clause by its words provides a criminal defendant the right to "confront" face-to-face the witnesses giving evidence against him at trial. That core guarantee serves the general perception that confrontation is essential to fairness, and helps to ensure the integrity of the factfinding process by making it more difficult for witnesses to lie. Pp. 1015-1020.

2. Appellant's right to face-to-face confrontation was violated since the screen at issue enabled the complaining witnesses to avoid viewing appellant as they gave their testimony. There is no merit to the State's assertion that its statute creates a presumption of trauma to victims of sexual abuse that outweighs appellant's right to confrontation. Even if an exception to this core right can be made, it would have to be based on something more than the type of generalized finding asserted here, unless it were "firmly . . . rooted in our jurisprudence." Bourjaily v. United States, 483 U.S. 171, 183, 107 S.Ct. 2775, 2783, 97 L.Ed.2d 144. An exception created by a 1985 statute can hardly be viewed as "firmly rooted," and there have been no individualized findings that these particular witnesses needed special protection. Pp. 1020-1021.

3. Since the State Supreme Court did not address the question whether the Confrontation Clause error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24, 87 S.Ct. 824, 828, 17 L.Ed.2d 705, the case must be remanded. Pp. 1021—1022.

397 N.W.2d 730 (Iowa 1986) reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which WHITE, J., joined, post, p. ---. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., joined, post, p. ---. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Paul Papak, Iowa City, Iowa, for appellant.

Gordon E. Allen, Des Moines, Iowa, for appellee.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant was convicted of two counts of lascivious acts with a child after a jury trial in which a screen placed between him and the two complaining witnesses blocked him from their sight. Appellant contends that this procedure, authorized by state statute, violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him.


In August 1985, appellant was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting two 13-year-old girls earlier that month while they were camping out in the backyard of the house next door to him. According to the girls, the assailant entered their tent after they were asleep wearing a stocking over his head, shined a flashlight in their eyes, and warned them not to look at him; neither was able to describe his face. In November 1985, at the beginning of appellant's trial, the State made a motion pursuant to a recently enacted statute, Act of May 23, 1985, § 6, 1985 Iowa Acts 338, now codified at Iowa Code § 910A.14 (1987),1 to allow the complaining witnesses to testify either via closed-circuit television or behind a screen. See App. 4-5. The trial court approved the use of a large screen to be placed between appellant and the witness stand during the girls' testimony. After certain lighting ad- justments in the courtroom, the screen would enable appellant dimly to perceive the witnesses, but the witnesses to see him not at all.

Appellant objected strenuously to use of the screen, based first of all on his Sixth Amendment confrontation right. He argued that, although the device might succeed in its apparent aim of making the complaining witnesses feel less uneasy in giving their testimony, the Confrontation Clause directly addressed this issue by giving criminal defendants a right to face-to-face confrontation. He also argued that his right to due process was violated, since the procedure would make him appear guilty and thus erode the presumption of innocence. The trial court rejected both constitutional claims, though it instructed the jury to draw no inference of guilty from the screen.

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed appellant's conviction, 397 N.W.2d 730 (1986). It rejected appellant's confrontation argument on the ground that, since the ability to cross-examine the witnesses was not impaired by the screen, there was no violation of the Confrontation Clause. It also rejected the due process argument, on the ground that the screening procedure was not inherently prejudicial. We noted probable jurisdiction, 483 U.S. 1019, 107 S.Ct. 3260, 97 L.Ed.2d 760 (1987).


The Sixth Amendment gives a criminal defendant the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him." This language "comes to us on faded parchment," California v. Green, 399 U.S. 149, 174, 90 S.Ct. 1930, 1943, 26 L.Ed.2d 489 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring), with a lineage that traces back to the beginnings of Western legal culture. There are indications that a right of confrontation existed under Roman law. The Roman Governor Festus, discussing the proper treatment of his prisoner, Paul, stated: "It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face to face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges." Acts 25:16. It has been argued that a form of the right of confrontation was recognized in England well before the right to jury trial. Pollitt, The Right of Confrontation: Its History and Modern Dress, 8 J.Pub.L. 381, 384-387 (1959).

Most of this Court's encounters with the Confrontation Clause have involved either the admissibility of out-of-court statements, see, e.g., Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56, 100 S.Ct. 2531, 65 L.Ed.2d 597 (1980); Dutton v. Evans, 400 U.S. 74, 91 S.Ct. 210, 27 L.Ed.2d 213 (1970), or restrictions on the scope of cross-examination, Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 106 S.Ct. 1431, 89 L.Ed.2d 674 (1986); Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 94 S.Ct. 1105, 39 L.Ed.2d 347 (1974). Cf. Delaware v. Fensterer, 474 U.S. 15, 18-19, 106 S.Ct. 292, 294, 88 L.Ed.2d 15 (1985) (per curiam ) (noting these two categories and finding neither applicable). The reason for that is not, as the State suggests, that these elements are the essence of the Clause's protection—but rather, quite to the contrary, that there is at least some room for doubt (and hence litigation) as to the extent to which the Clause includes those elements, whereas, as Justice Harlan put it, "[s]imply as a matter of English" it confers at least "a right to meet face to face all those who appear and give evidence at trial." California v. Green, supra, at 175, 90 S.Ct., at 1943-1944. Simply as a matter of Latin as well, since the word "confront" ultimately derives from the prefix "con-" (from "contra" meaning "against" or "opposed") and the noun "frons" (forehead). Shakespeare was thus describing the root meaning of confrontation when he had Richard the Second say: "Then call them to our presence—face to face, and frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear the accuser and the accused freely speak. . . ." Richard II, Act 1, sc. 1.

We have never doubted, therefore, that the Confrontation Clause guarantees the defendant a face-to-face meeting with witnesses appearing before the trier of fact. See Kentucky v. Stincer, 482 U.S. 730, 748, 749-750, 107 S.Ct. 2658, 2668, 96 L.Ed.2d 631 (1987) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting). For example, in Kirby v. United States, 174 U.S. 47, 55, 19 S.Ct. 574, 577, 43 L.Ed. 890 (1899), which concerned the admissibility of prior convictions of codefendants to prove an element of the of- fense of receiving stolen Government property, we described the operation of the Clause as follows: "[A] fact which can be primarily established only by witnesses cannot be proved against an accused . . . except by witnesses who confront him at the trial, upon whom he can look while being tried, whom he is entitled to cross-examine, and whose testimony he may impeach in every mode authorized by the established rules governing the trial or conduct of criminal cases." Similarly, in Dowdell v. United States, 221 U.S. 325, 330, 31 S.Ct. 590, 592, 55 L.Ed. 753 (1911), we described a provision of the Philippine Bill of Rights as substantially the same as the Sixth Amendment, and proceeded to interpret it as intended "to secure the accused the right to be tried, so far as facts provable by witnesses are concerned, by only such witnesses as meet him face to face at the trial, who give their testimony in his presence, and give to the accused an opportunity of cross-examination." More recently, we have described the "literal right to 'confront' the witness at the time of trial" as forming "the core of the values furthered by the Confrontation Clause." California v. Green, supra, at 157, 90 S.Ct., at 1934-1935. Last Term, the plurality opinion in Pennsylvania v. Ritchie, 480 U.S. 39, 51, 107 S.Ct. 989, 998, 94 L.Ed.2d 40 (1987), stated that "[t]he Confrontation Clause provides two types of protections for a criminal defendant: the right physically to face those who testify against him, and the right to conduct...

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